Commentary on Acts 12 (Peter Escapes Prison)

Chapter 12 opens with the second recorded martyrdom in the book of Acts. Herod Agrippa I executes James, the son of Zebedee and brother of John, in the year A.D. 42 or 43, roughly ten years after Jesus’ resurrection. He dies by the sword, which likely means he was beheaded. John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains who Herod Agrippa is:

Agrippa was the grandson of Herod the Great. His father, Aristobulus, had been executed in 7 b.c. by his grandfather for fear that he might usurp his throne. After his father’s death, while still a child, Agrippa was sent to Rome with his mother, where he was reared and educated along with the children of the Roman aristocracy. These childhood friendships eventually led to his ruling over a Jewish kingdom nearly the extent of that of his grandfather. In a.d. 37 the emperor Caligula gave him the title of king and made him ruler over the territories formerly ruled by his uncle Philip, lands in the Transjordan and the Ten Cities (Decapolis) north of Galilee. In a.d. 39 Caligula extended Agrippa’s rule by giving him Galilee and Perea, the territory of his uncle Antipas, who had been sent into exile. Finally, when his former schoolmate Claudius became emperor in a.d. 41, he was given rule of Judea and Samaria, which had been under Roman procurators for thirty-five years. He was truly ‘king of the Jews’ now, ruling over all of Judea, Samaria, Galilee, the Transjordan, and the Decapolis.

James is the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. It is interesting to note that there is not any record of the other apostles replacing him as they replaced Judas. Perhaps it was not practical to find another disciple of Jesus who participated in his three-year ministry, or maybe the remaining Eleven saw no need for a replacement, as this is some ten years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Seeing that the execution of James pleased the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem, Herod Agrippa then arrests the leader of the apostles, Peter. Herod incarcerates him during the eight-day Feast of Unleavened Bread, and his plan seems to be to hold a public trial and execution of Peter after the Feast ends. Until the conclusion of the Feast, Peter is imprisoned and guarded by four groups of four soldiers (a squad consists of four soldiers). Each squad would take turns guarding him, likely on three-hour rotations. During each rotation, two soldiers would be chained to him, and two others would stand guard outside the prison cell. Most scholars think that Peter’s prison cell was inside the Fortress of Antonia, located at the northwest corner of the Jerusalem temple.

The church in Jerusalem is praying earnestly for Peter and the night before Herod is to present Peter publicly, their prayers are answered. An angel of the Lord appears with bright light in the prison cell. The angel then strikes Peter with great force to wake him up!

When Peter awakens, the angel gives him step-by-step instructions. Peter’s chains fall off, and he then follows the angel through several doors/gates, past sleeping guards, and finally out of prison and into the streets of Jerusalem. Up to this point, Peter believes he is just dreaming or having a vision. But once he finds himself outside and the angel departed, he realizes that God has saved him from the public trial and execution which Herod was planning.

Once outside the fortress, Peter rushes to the nearest home of his Christian brothers and sisters. This happens to be the home of Mary, mother of John Mark. Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), comments:

Luke here introduces a young man who will become a significant figure in the book of Acts and early Christianity. Like Saul/Paul, he has both a Jewish name (John) and a Roman name (Mark). Paul identifies him as the cousin of Barnabas (Col. 4:10). After returning from Jerusalem to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas, he became one of their missionary traveling companions (Acts 12:25; 13:5). For some unstated reason, he left them in the middle of their journey and returned to Jerusalem (13:13). This led to a sharp disagreement between Paul and Barnabas over Mark’s suitability for ongoing missionary service—an irresolvable disagreement that led to each of these leaders going separate ways (15:37-41). Whatever misgivings Paul has about Mark later evaporated, for Paul instructed Timothy to ‘get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Tim. 4:11).

John Mark is also thought to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. The fourth-century church historian Eusebius writes: “When, at Rome, Peter had openly preached the word and by the spirit had proclaimed the gospel, the large audience urged Mark, who had followed him for a long time and remembered what had been said, to write it all down. This he did, making his Gospel available to all who wanted it.”

When Peter arrives, he knocks on the door of the gateway into the courtyard of the house (Mary is obviously wealthy). A servant named Rhoda comes to the gate, hears Peter’s voice, and then runs back inside. She tells the Christians gathered in the house that Peter is outside and they tell her she is crazy! They assume that Peter has died and his personal angel is visiting them, not Peter himself.

According to Arnold,

Many Jews believed in the notion of an angel who was closely associated with a person and could even take on that person’s appearance. Note the book of Tobit, where the angel Raphael took on the disguise of Azarias (a relative of Tobit’s) and became a guide for Tobit’s son, Tobias (Tobit 5:4-16). Jesus himself spoke of angels associated with children: ‘See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven’ (Matt. 18:10). This led to a belief in the church about angels assigned to people for their lifetimes and who from time to time intervene on their behalf.

Finally, after Peter continues knocking on the door, they open it and are amazed that he is alive and standing right in front of them. Peter hushes them and tells how the angel saved him from Herod. Peter decides that he must leave Jerusalem immediately, but before he leaves, he says, “Tell these things to James and to the brothers.” The James to whom Peter refers is the half-brother of Jesus, who by this time had become a leader in the Jerusalem church.

The next day Herod discovers that Peter has escaped, and after questioning the soldiers who were watching him, has them all executed. This was a common practice among Romans. If a prisoner escaped, those in charge of his incarceration might be put to death in the prisoner’s place.

Luke records that Herod leaves Jerusalem for Caesarea. Months later, on the day Herod is publicly announcing a trade deal with the cities of Tyre and Sidon, Herod is acclaimed to be a god by the people in the assembled crowd. According to Luke, God strikes Herod with a fatal gastrointestinal disease (worms) because he accepted the crowd’s worship instead of giving God glory.

The Jewish historian Josephus corroborates Luke’s account of Herod Agrippa’s death. Josephus writes that Herod suffered for five days before he died. He dates Herod’s death in AD 44.

John Polhill notes that the events of Acts 12 continue a familiar motif established earlier in the book:

There is both mercy and judgment with the Lord. The Spirit blessed the faithful Christians with miraculous works and great growth (5:12–16). The same Spirit brought judgment to Ananias and Sapphira (5:1–11). The Lord’s angel delivered Peter from mortal danger (12:6–17). The Lord’s angel struck Agrippa dead for all his arrogance (12:20–23). He did not ‘give praise to God’—neither in his acceptance of the people’s blasphemous acclamation nor in his persecution of God’s people.